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Posted by on Oct 14, 2009 in Infectious diseases, Media, Popular culture

…And Furthermore, Bill Maher Needs a Haircut

…And Furthermore, Bill Maher Needs a Haircut


Like white on rice, rational bloggers have been all over Bill Maher’s goofy ideas about vaccines and vaccination. It’s too bad, though, that the man has a nationally televised show, HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher,” which affords Maher an opportunity to influence potentially gullible viewers in front of (like many a talk/variety/comedy show) an audibly fawning studio audience.

Nevertheless, begrudging props may be given to Maher for inviting retired Republican Senator and physician Bill Frist on Friday to discuss vaccination. In this segment, it’s not entirely clear that Maher “gets schooled” by Frist about vaccines (despite the clip’s title). Schooling requires that Maher’s thick skull be penetrable. And schooling requires timemuch more time than television typically allows.

But a blog provides an enduring, leisurely format for dissecting and refuting some of the utterly fallible anti-vaccine statements that Maher made on Friday and that Frist didn’t have the chance to challenge.

Maher comment #1: Conservatives always say, about healthcare especially: You gonna let the government run healthcare? They screw everything up. So why would you let them stick a disease into your arm? I would never get a swine flu vaccine or any vaccine. I don’t trust the government, especially with my health. [Applause.] And that seems to be a conservative opinion: not to trust the government.

Dissection: The usually liberal Maher tries to create a bit of oh-gosh irony here by aligning himself with traditionally government-distrusting conservatives. He then jumps to make a very broad and loose association between government incompetence and government-recommended vaccination. However, if Maher were familiar with the monumental benefits of historical vaccination programs (eg, against smallpox and polio), the association actually supports organized intervention into healthcare (whether instigated by a government or some other authoritative entity, like the World Health Organization).

At the same time, Maher indicates that vaccination is a process whereby “disease” is injected into the body. First “disease” is a clinical manifestation of bodily dysfunction; it is not something that can be confined in a syringe. But we sort of know what Maher’s means here, so we’ll give him a pass on this semantic point. What Maher is really implying is that disease-causing virus is injected during vaccination. But that idea is also false.

With respect to the injected 2009 H1N1 (swine flu) vaccine, the inoculant is a killed (actually chemically “split”) viruswhich is incapable of causing infection (but is capable of inducing protective immunity). The nasal-spray vaccine from MedImmune contains live, attenuated H1N1 virus. The attenuated virus is engineered (ie, cold adapted and temperature sensitive) so that it can replicate in the cooler confines of the nose to induce immunity, without causing influenza-like illness.

Maher indicates that he would never get the swine flu vaccine, which is fine (assuming that Maher isn’t at baseline risk for influenza complications and doesn’t care for an infant younger than 6 months of age*). The 53-year-old isn’t a CDC-recommended candidate for the 2009 H1N1 vaccine (although he should get a seasonal flu shot).

Maher comment #2 (in response to a Frist anecdote about a patient dying of swine flu): I cannot believe that a perfectly healthy person died of swine flu. That person was not perfectly healthy. MedicalWestern medicine misses a lot.

Dissection: Maher’s just flat-out wrong here. Regardless of what he believes, serious H1N1-related disease preferentially affects persons younger than 65 years of age, and about 45% of Americans who have died of swine flu were healthy, according to the CDC. With his last sentence, Maher also betrays a broad, inherent distrust of Western (really, allopathic) medicine. 

Maher comment #3: Let me read you a quote from the former control officer at the US FDA. His name is Dr. J. Anthony Morris. He said, “There is no evidence that any influenza vaccine thus far developed is effective in preventing or mitigating any attack of influenza. The producers of these vaccines know they are worthless, but they go on selling them anyway.”

Dissection: By quoting J. Anthony Morris, Maher reveals a lazy reliance on an ostensibly authoritative source, about which he probably knows nothing. 

Finding reliable information on Morris (at least on the web) is a challenge; at first blush, he appears to be a quotable favorite among anti-vaccinationistsprobably because of the specious appeal-to-authority angle (ie, Morris reportedly has/had a PhD in bacteriology and was an FDA employee). An archived newspaper search reveals that Morris was a virologist in the Division of Biologic Standards, which was part of the NIH until 1972 when the division was transferred to the FDA.

In the fall of 1971, Morris made news by arguing to Congress that influenza vaccines were not just useless, but dangerous (see Lyons RD. Influenza shots held ineffective. NYT. October 15, 1971). He claimed that “not only has there been little or no benefit from the use of influenza vaccine in man, but harm has resulted.” However, a federally appointed, 12-person scientific committee rejected Morris’s claims of incompetence within his NIH division; although the committee did concede, in ho-hum fashion, that “inactivated influenza vaccines are imperfect instruments for the prevention of influenza.” (The committee may have been referring to subpotent lots of influenza vaccine that were distributed in the 1960s.) The committee then proceeded to reject Morris’s claims that influenza vaccines are harmful (see Lyons RD. Charges of poor vaccine regulation rejected. NYT. November 30, 1971).

A related news story in June 1972 indicates that Morris had been demoted within his division, which was now (presumably) a part of the FDA. But later news reports indicate that Morris was appointed director of the Slow and Temperate Virus Branch of the agency.

In July 1976, Morris, then 57, was finally fired from the FDA for “insubordination” and “inefficiency.” Morris claimed that he was sacked from his $35,000-a-year job because he opposed President Ford’s swine flu vaccination program. FDA officials acknowledged, at the time, that it was very unusual for an FDA employee to be fired, but the process that led to Morris’s departure began long before anybody recognized the swine flu threat. Later Morris showed up on fear-mongering talk shows like “Phil Donahue” and provided anti-vaccine quotes to news reporters as recently as 1988. 

A phrase search of various archived newspapers fails to return a source for the exact quote cited by Maher, except in 1 instance: Donald Harte, in a November 2007 editorial for the Marin Independent Journal (“Is there a vaccine that protects against non-science?”) requotes Morris from a citation in a contemporary issue of Health & Fitness magazine. The quote was described as being 30 years old, but the original source was not identified. 

Morris, if alive this year (and I haven’t been able to confirm whether he’s alive or dead), would be about 90. 

Maher comment #4: But a virus is always mutating. You would agree with that? [Frist: Yeah.] So, so the vaccine that they produce back in Marchthat’s not really what’s gonna prevent what’s, what’s going on now. BecauseI know a lot of people on the conservative side don’t believe in evolutionbutand you can’t see evolution in advanced species, but you can see[Frist interrupts: We know this vaccine is 98% effective…]

Dissection: Here Maher tries to discount the efficacy of the swine flu vaccine by implying that the virus has mutated so much since the creation of the vaccine (in March) that it will evade whatever immunity is produced by inoculation. However, on October 9 (the same day that Maher’s show aired), the CDC reported that the 2009 H1N1 viruses “have not undergone substantial antigenic change since they were first characterized in April 2009 and should be well-matched to the monovalent vaccine strain.” 

Last month, data published in the NEJM indicated that significant antibody titers were generated in 97% of adults after 1 dose of the inactivated vaccine. Rates of antibody production among children aged 6-35 months, 3-9 years, and 10-17 years were 25%, 36%, and 76%, respectively. These data are the foundation for recommending 2 vaccine doses in children younger than 10 years of age. The suboptimal immune response in younger children is probably related to their limited immune experience with influenza viruses and is clearly not the result of viral mutation.

There have been scattered reports of 2009 H1N1 virus that is resistant to oseltamivir (Tamiflu), but all of these isolates were susceptible to zanamivir (Relenza).

Maher comment #5: Dr. Jonas Salk: “Live virus vaccines against influenza and paralytic polio, for example, may in each instance cause the disease it’s intended to prevent.”

Dissection: Another appeal to authority by Maher. Salk, as everyone knows, was the creator of the inactivated polio vaccine. The quote cannot be confirmed and, again, appears to be a favorite among online anti-vaccinationists. An archived newspaper search fails to return relevant hits, and without context, it’s useless to interpret a statement that Salk may or may not have made.

* And don’t we all hope that’s the case.

bmartin (1127 Posts)

A native East Tennessean, Barbara Martin is a formerly practicing, board-certified neurologist who received her BS (psychology, summa cum laude) and MD from Duke University before completing her postgraduate training (internship, residency, fellowship) at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. She has worked in academia, private practice, medical publishing, drug market research, and continuing medical education (CME). For the last 3 years, she has worked in a freelance capacity as a medical writer, analyst, and consultant. Follow Dr. Barbara Martin on and Twitter.


  1. Of course there were a few problems with the last time a vaccine was going to keep all of America safe against the swine flu…1976…Gerald Ford. . .

  2. Yes, a stroll down memory lane to examine Ford’s swine flu vaccination program merits another post.

  3. Excellent slap-down, Barb. Maher should be asked to offer some retractions/corrections on his show (or website, if one exists) given the gross inaccuracies of some of his remarks. Apparently both hair stylists and fact-checkers were trimmed from his staff owing to the current state of the economy.
    The memory of excess Guillain-Barre cases after Ford’s swine flu program seems fresh in my mind. Real or imagined?